Every year, starting in April, hundreds of southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) arrive at the coasts of Península Valdés in Chubut, Argentina, where they can be seen until December. They travel from Antarctica, their feeding ground, in search of warmer waters to give birth and raise their calves.
This “whale season” is quite an event in the region, and has become its main tourist attraction, with boat-watching outings as the favorite excursion. Following a responsible watching protocol that ensures that the whales are not disturbed, thousands of tourists embark each winter to meet them. The most interesting: these protagonists are not anonymous.
OF CRUSTACEANS AND FINGERPRINTS
One of the most distinctive features of this species is the pattern of calluses that each individual presents throughout the body. These calluses are actually colonies of cyamidssmall crustaceans that are also known as whale lice. The callus pattern of each whale is unique, which makes it possible to recognize individuals as if they were our fingerprints.
The one who discovered this was Dr. Roger Payne, an American scientist who had settled on the coast of the Valdés Peninsula to study the whales that arrived year after year. Based on these first campaigns, the Whale Conservation Institute was founded in 1996, which today works using this “fingerprint” to identify the whales: each season, researchers carry out aerial surveys where they seek to photograph the larger number of individuals, in order to be able to compare their callus patterns. This is how the catalog of southern right whales was formed, which today has more than 3,800 registered specimens.
PIONEER AND TROFF: STORIES OF REUNIONS
Pionera is one of the whales the Institute has known for the longest: it was first identified in 1971, back when the Research Program was taking its first steps. Since then, she has been seen again twenty-five times, which led to the discovery that she has already had five pups. Also, his mother is also known for the Programand it is known that he had seven other calves in Patagonia, siblings of Pionera.
Another story that goes back to the ’70s is that of Troff. Troff was also first identified at the beginning of the aerial surveys., when she was swimming in the waters of the Peninsula with a calf, and was sighted several more times over the following years. Throughout that decade, it was seen raising at least three calves, and although sightings on the Peninsula stopped in 1981, it was seen in southern Brazil in 1988 with another calf. But the story does not end there: In 2004, Troff reappeared in the waters of the Gulf of San Matías, after 23 years.
Whales know no borders: coming from Antarctica, some stop in Chubut, but others continue to Uruguay and Brazil, like Troff.
WHAT IS THE USE OF IDENTIFYING THEM?
The photo-identification and subsequent catalog allow monitoring of the population and of each of the registered whales. The data collected in each campaign allows the Institute to monitor the population of whales and their number of individuals, study what migration patterns they show, and what their way of life is like.
In the case of pioneerfor example, their sightings over the years not only allow us to meet their young and know that they are still of reproductive age, but also tell us about the threats that this species faces. When seen in 2017, it was noted to have a wound just above the caudal finwhich was probably caused by a fishing net, one of the main problems that today puts the biodiversity of the oceans at risk.
On the other hand, the observations of Troff, during the eleven years in which he was seen in the Peninsula, and of his young, were important for study reproduction of the whales of this species.
It is important to remember that this species was dragged to the brink of extinction by the whalers who hunted them until the 1980s, when all commercial whaling around the world was banned. Today, in the Argentine Republic, the southern right whale is a protected species and a Natural Monument, and its population is recovering. It’s a slow process: These animals reach sexual maturity between the ages of 7 and 15, have a gestation period of approximately one year, and then remain with their young for up to twelve months.
“INVESTIGATE, EDUCATE AND IMPACT”
Those are the three pillars of the Whale Conservation Institute, an unprecedented organization in Argentina. Although the hunting of cetaceans is prohibited throughout the world, and their populations slowly recover, Today the oceans face numerous problems that put their ecosystems at risk. Through non-lethal research techniques, educational programs and conservation actions, those who work at the Institute not only advocate for southern right whales, but also for their habitat and the marine biodiversity with which they share it.